Preventing Youth Sports Injuries May Prevent Future Osteoarthritis

Preventing Youth Sports Injuries May Prevent Future Osteoarthritis

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Trends in Youth Sports

If it appears that sports are starting younger and getting more competitive over the years, they are. Approximately 30 million children and adolescents participate in sports each year. Seventy percent of children between the ages of 5 and 17 will play at least one team sport. The peak ages of sports participation is between 13 and 14 years old. While there are a lot of health and social benefits to sports, there are also inherent problems. One is sport-related injury which can have a long-lasting impact. In fact, three and a half million children and teens will visit the emergency room with a sports-related injury annually.

Injury: A Consequence of Competition

One might ask “Aren’t sports healthy?” Yes, with a caveat. Along with an increase in youth sport participation there also appears to be an increase in pressure to be highly competitive. As a result, kids are playing one or more sports year round, ignoring pain, and minimizing injuries to “get back in the game.” This makes them more vulnerable to both overuse and impact injuries.

What does all of this overuse and injury mean to young, developing bodies? Injury during youth sports can increase the risk of knee, hip and ankle Osteoarthritis in adulthood. In fact, the risk of developing Osteoarthritis of the knee following an ACL injury is 50%.

What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a painful disease that effects more than 27 million Americans. It is the leading cause of disability in the United States and the most common type of arthritis. By age 40, 90% of all people will have some level of OA in their weight bearing joints. OA occurs when the cartilage that acts as a cushion around the joint becomes thinner and rougher causing the bones to eventually rub against each other.

Factors placing people at higher risk for developing OA include: being overweight, age, family history, being female, and damage to tissues secondary to sports or other injury. Though there are several risk factors that contribute to OA, managing the intensity of our participation in sports and preventing sports injuries to the best of our ability goes a long way in preventing this disease.

Preventing Future Osteoarthritis In Our Youths Today

Most kids are not going to the Olympics, so it is up to the adults to keep sports in perspective – as a healthy form of exercise and a great way to learn about teamwork. For most children and adolescents, having fun and staying fit is where it should begin and end. However, there are certainly many talented youths who can go far in their sport and have many doors open because of it.

Tips for young athletes of all levels to prevent future OA:

  • Exercise is certainly a preventative factor in OA. It is the sports injury that increases risk. If possible, chose a sport with a lower risk of injury, such as non-contact sports with minimal joint impact. Soccer, football, weight lifting, and rugby carry the highest risk for knee injury particularly among female athletes. Running is still debated.
  • Exercise regularly but avoid REPETITIVE stress on the joints. This means instead of doing one sport all year, alternate between a few. – Focus on proper technique in sports and cross-training.
  • Take 10 weeks off of all sports each year.
  • Listen to your pain and take time to recover from injury or strain. Pain is your body’s signal that you are overdoing it. Previous joint injury is a common cause of OA because the improper alignment that results from injury wears away at the cartilage once sports resume. Make sure you seek proper treatment and allow for a full recovery before returning to the sport.
  • Focus on health and nutrition. Being even 10 pounds overweight increases force on the knee by 30 to 40 pounds with each step taken increasing the risk of injury.

No one is saying that you must yank little Johnny out of soccer to save his knees from a future of pain. Staying active in sports is a great thing for our children and exercise prevents many health problems. Yet we need to be aware that some sports carry a greater risk of injury to joints than others. Knee injury prevention and proper medical management post-injury may go a long way in preventing the pain and debilitation of OA in the future.

By: Alicia DiFabio, PsyD


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Alicia DiFabio, Psy.D. is a freelance writer with a doctorate in psychology. Her personal essays and parenting articles have appeared in various newspapers and magazines. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four girls, one of whom has extensive special needs. She can be found writing about her adventures in parenting at her blog, Lost In Holland.

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